What do you think when you hear that someone “broke the internet”? You probably picture a celebrity doing something provocative, but for citizens in 12 African countries, last week someone really broke the internet. While the cause is still unknown, the underwater cables, WACS and SAT3/WACS broke in two places; one off the coast of Gabon and the other off the coast of Angola. The break caused slow internet speeds and, in some cases, shut off mobile data and made cross-border phone calls impossible. The frustration was palpable as citizens who usually text via Whatsapp switched to SMS, double-checking with their friends that the internet was really broken.
MTN, the South African giant, texted its customers in Ghana on Saturday claiming that they have fixed 50% of the issue and that “works are still ongoing to achieve 100% restoration of our data services.” A few days without mobile internet showed many people how dependent they have become on it, but for most women, nothing changed.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 29% of women are connected to mobile internet, the predominate channel for accessing the internet. That means that 200m women are not connected to the internet. The gender-gap for mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa is 41%. That means that while only 29% of women have access to mobile internet, 70% of men have it. It is larger than every region except South Asia and massive compared to the 2% gender gap in Latin America and the Caribbean. In a country like Cote d’Ivoire, which was affected by last week’s cable break, over half of men have access to mobile internet while just over a quarter of women do.
Access to the internet can have a substantial impact on health, safety, and earning potential. A study by the non-profit, No Ceilings, showed that when women in low- and middle-income countries get access to the internet, 30% use it to earn additional income, 45% use it to search for a job, and 80% use it to learn. It’s a gap worth closing.
So how can we close it? While there is a gender-gap in overall awareness of the internet, the gender-gap will not be solved only through targeted internet-specific interventions. According to a GSMA report, the biggest barrier to women using mobile internet in Africa is “literacy and skills” followed by “affordability”. So closing the gender-gap in internet access means closing it in access to education and paid employment. The mobile-internet gender gap is just one of many we need to focus on closing in 2020..